Category Archives: RPG

Review: Mass Effect 2

Game: Mass Effect 2
Recommended price: $25
Metacritic Score: 94
Completion Time: ~36 hours
Buy If You Like: Mass Effect, or cover-based 3rd person action-RPG shooters

It was with no small amount of trepidation that I booted up Mass Effect 2 (hereafter ME2) for the first time a few weeks ago. Having been so late to the Mass Effect party generally, the ongoing internet narratives surrounding ME2’s quality and “worthiness” as a sequel had already congealed into a crusty shell of opinion. I heard claims about “dumbing down,” that Bioware was losing its way and letting the RPG bits drift, abandoned in the dark places between stars. What would I find, coming from the original which so thoroughly and completely sucked me into a new universe?

What I found in ME2 was highly enjoyable, more… streamlined game.

Commander Shephard being a badass

Commander Badass reporting for duty.

A lot of my issues with the original Mass Effect came down to Bioware trying to shoehorn in RPG bits where they did not really fit. There were talents and upgrades and items without the underlying structure of, say, inventory management or character stat screens. In ME2, all of that has basically been removed. You can still find or purchase new weapons, but each weapon is not necessarily better than the ones you already have – it is more akin to alternate weapons in normal FPS games. There still is not a coherent stat screen, but the talent/power-choosing process has been truncated down to the point where it is not necessary.

While that is an improvement over the last game, I was left with the nagging feeling that it doesn’t really make sense to have levels and XP at all anymore; since you inevitably level up after each mission, why not just give players the talent points? Similarly, I was also left with the impression that there really was not much difference between Biotic and Tech-based powers. I could not tell you offhand what the mechanical difference between Tech and Biotic was in the original Mass Effect, but it seemed pretty clear that Biotics was supposed to be special and rare. Now it seems like more than half my crew was Biotic along with most of the organic enemies.

Although the nuts and bolts being streamlined could be viewed as good or bad depending on tastes, the combat itself feels much, much better in ME2. Taking cover feels a lot more fluid, firefights are longer and include more enemies, and with the radically shortened cooldown on Powers, you can do some pretty outrageously dynamic things. There may have been a lined crossed somewhere along the way – perhaps when I was warp-charging through cover every 6 seconds to punch heavily-armored bosses in the face – but I will take dynamic, exciting combat over rote realism any day. After all, how believable is it to have ample chest-high obstructions in every other room to begin with?

Best party member since Minsc.

My favorite aspect of the original Mass Effect was the integration of non-verbal dialog into the narrative, and the general narrative itself. In ME2, that is kicked up a notch^². Characters smile, nod, gesture, facepalm, wink, and otherwise emote in subtle, natural ways. Indeed, these little actions end up becoming part of the dialog, creating nuance and meaning that words themselves could not convey. Some scenes are punctuated with Quick Time Event-esque moves, such as interrupting a bad guy speech by just shooting him, or stopping someone from doing something they will later regret. While QTEs are normally cheap, annoying gimmicks to force players to pay attention, the ones in ME2 felt a natural part of the narrative… including when you went ahead and let a teammate squeeze off a round in the criminal’s kneecap. I have not played a proper RPG since starting up this Mass Effect experiment, and I am still nervous about whether I could ever go back to static character portraits, scrolling text, or (well-done) narrative QTEs again.

One other thing about the dialog that deserves special mention: this is one of the most goddamn hilarious games I have ever played. Sometimes ME2 crosses the line into absurdity – the cigar-smoking Elcor shopkeeper, anyone? – but most of it evoked more literal LOL moments than eyerolls. That is not to say there is not any drama or serious things going down. Rather, it is precisely these moments of sardonic levity that drive home stakes. You end up liking these characters, wanting to hear what quip they will bust out next, and then are suddenly confronted with the very real possibility they will die based on your actions.

What really ended up surprising me was when what originally appeared to be a simple “alien + personality quirk” party member, suddenly unfolded into a paper crane of origami complexity. I am specifically talking about Mordin, whom I felt practically stole the show aboard the Normandy. The transition between him being a “stereotypical” Salarian with a humorous ADHD staccato manner of speaking, to a weary doctor haunted by the ethical ghosts of his past is nothing short of brilliant. In fact, it is not even really a transition of his character, but a transition of your perception of his character; he didn’t become deeper, you merely discovered the depths. While the other characters are perhaps less complex in comparison, that is practically true of most characters in any RPG that I can recall.

Dialog and characterization aside, I am sympathetic to claims that ME2 streamlined the plot a bit too much. I wasn’t a huge fan of driving the Mako on every random planet, but when that option is replaced with a (decently fun) scanning minigame and combined with exploration mechanics that discourage exploration (we have fuel now?), it ends up making the universe seem a bit too small. Plus, I am not a huge fan of the Restart at Level One trope to begin with, or really how it was presented here. Instead of an epic, unified journey, ME2 really felt like 2-3 missions with about a dozen sidequests between you and the third. I want to stress though, again, this is a weakness with the story structure, rather than the story itself. Each of those episodic sidequests were worth experiencing on their own, but I do recognize how little effect they seemed to have on the overall plot.

"You know, somehow, 'I told you so' just doesn't quite say it."

Is Mass Effect 2 as groundbreaking as the original? Of course not. The first game had the task of creating an entire universe filled with races and peoples, and had to go about getting you to care about learning more about them. In that respect it succeeded admirably. It is difficult to add something to an already completed picture though, and so I got the impression that Mass Effect 2 was concerning itself with making you care about Shepard. Not in the sense that Shepard is the most interesting man/woman in the galaxy, but rather in the sense that you genuinely care about the choices you will soon be forced to make in the coming war. Mass Effect was about world-building, and Mass Effect 2 about filling that world with individuals. As Mordin says:

No. Aware survival unlikely. Actually contacted him for personal connection.

Hard to imagine galaxy. Too many people. Faceless. Statistics. Easy to depersonalize. Good when doing unpleasant work.

For this fight, want personal connection. Can’t anthropomorphize galaxy. But can think of favorite nephew. Fighting for him.

Does Mass Effect 2 emulate the mechanics of RPGs as well as the first game? No. Did Mass Effect 2 capture the soul of RPGs, the essence of what makes them worth experiencing?


Skyrim Design Nettles

Skyrim thus far has been as amazing an experience as everyone says. There is something to be said about how the fidelity of an experience engenders instant immersion in ways videogaming might not have achieved even five years ago. I already posted the screenshot of what I saw exiting the tutorial dungeon for the first time, and I was immediately struck by the same awe and infinite possibility I felt leaving the Vault in Fallout 3.

My current desktop background. Well, at +1000 resolution.

What I want to talk about today though, are the Design Nettles in Skyrim. These are the little things that take me out of the experience with their sting, no matter how much I try and ignore them. Every game has its idiosyncrasies, but what elevates these particular annoyances is either how out of place they seem within the context of a fidelitous experience, or how much they are artifacts of a bygone design era.

Imbalanced Skill Gains

Raising one’s Sneak level by auto-running into the wall for an hour has been a staple of Bethesda design since at least Morrowind. Why they choose not to fix that isn’t the problem. The problem is simply the imbalanced skill gains generally.

I gained two entire character levels in the first town from simply pickpocketing; going from level 6 to level 8 within the same house, in fact. Indeed, I gained 5 skill points for pickpocketing ONE ITEM, a magic ring from a sleeping guy. My pickpocketing skill is currently north of 70, I am level 21, and I haven’t even seen a 3rd city or a dragon yet. Meanwhile, I have probably picked 30 locks in the same time period and received ~4 skill ups. Same with Blacksmithing, Alchemy, Enchanting, Sneaking, Archery, and so on and so forth.

This is more of a problem in Skyrim than it was in Oblivion, because gaining any skill points increases one’s level, which in turn increases the level of all enemies in the game world. More insidiously, you can go hours (or specifically 18 hours in my case) before the problem even begins to manifest itself. I ran into some bandits on a bridge who were immune to my normal tactics which had hitherto worked in every encounter, and I only succeeded by “gaming” the system in rather ridiculous ways – playing Ring-Around-the-Cookpot and ladeling myself 16 servings of Apple Cabbage Stew in Matrix-esque bullet-time.

Enemies on Minimap

I can appreciate the design challenge that comes from choosing to have enemies appear on the minimap. Specifically, once you do that, you cede the ability to create tension via unknown enemy placement without resorting to dumb gimmicks. I like to call this the Silent Hill effect – unlike Resident Evil or other survival horror games where monsters can jump out at you at any moment, Silent Hill gives the player a radio that plays static whenever enemies are about. No static, no monsters.

Silent Hill as a series gets around this “limitation” by being fucking scary even when there aren’t enemies around (and by segmenting the game into rooms), but Fallout 3 and Fallout New Vegas fall into the trap of essentially lying to the player; “You can see enemies, and even raise stats to see them from farther away, unless we need to generate tension in which case your abilities will be useless.”

Skyrim attempts to have it both ways, while simultaneously stepping into one of my biggest pet peeves in “realistic” games.

In Skyrim, enemies that have aggro’d to your presence appear as red dots on the map-bar. You can even track the movement of these enemies through walls and barriers. Other than that, nothing appears on the map-bar other than locations. Which is… fine, right? Resident Evil, Half-Life, etc, don’t have minimaps with enemies on them either. My peeve though, relates to how high-fidelity games play out as if my highly skilled avatar is as clueless as me, the player.

Look. It’s clear the Skyrim designers decided not to put animals/people/etc on the minimap in order to increase realism. If I’m chasing butterflies to eat their delicious wings, it’s fair play that the tiger I wasn’t even looking for gets its turn too. But if I’m specifically hunting that tiger, or I’m sneaking up on the bandit camp, it simply feels dumb to be surprised due to lack of information. I can’t hear the guy in full plate walking around because the designers refused to give me that input; or if they did, they made audio-only to the point where I’d blow out my desktop speakers trying to hear it.

You can’t ask me to put myself in that field, and deny me access to my normal senses. And you can’t pretend that my normal senses are adequately represented in your arbitrary, game design way.

In other words, Christ, I want NPCs on that minimap. It obviously changed my behavior in the Fallout series knowing where people are even through walls and such, but removing it and pretending my character is as careless as I am playing the game is worse. Indoors? Yes, it works well to force people to be careful. Outdoors? Completely ruins any semblance of stealth-ish gameplay. At least, until I “beat the system” by Quick-Saving every 30 seconds and simply reloading if I stumble into a bandit camp without the opportunity to sneak attack someone.

Skyrim: Day 0

The ideal scenario, I believe, is to start playing popular (or notorious) games right when they come out. Not only is the potential for spoilers minimized, but there is also something to be said in exploring a brand new game as a virtual group, together. And the pageviews. Can’t forget about the pageviews.

Riding in on the backwash of the tidal wave of Skyrim blog posts does grant me the sort of perspective that First Day/Month players don’t start out with. Sometimes it’s good (“Don’t Sneak into a wall for two hours.”), sometimes it’s bad (“Infinite mana via Enchanting, yo.”), and sometimes… well, you start noticing things right away:

Wait a minute... did that arrow really hit him in the...

That aside, I wanted to kind of lay out the way I was approaching Skyrim before I get too far (12 hours and counting) into it to remember – indeed, I only stopped to write this because I had a C++ crash-to-desktop interrupting me.

  • I strongly disliked Oblivion overall; in many ways, I considered it the anti-RPG. Here was a RPG that punished you for specializing in three skills that you actually use. Here was a RPG filled with quests that had no rewards, i.e. XP. Here was a RPG that discouraged exploration insofar that dungeons get stocked with crap treasure the earlier you reach it. Here was a RPG I broke in half after an hour of tinkering at the weapon enchanting workbench and 1000g (“Hey… -100 HP for 1 second costs practically nothing. And it can reduce them to zero? And it stacks if you cast it real fast?!”).
  • If I’m honest, Oblivion’s true crime could simply have been that I played it after having spent 150+ hours in Fallout 3. Not only do I enjoy post-apocalypse settings better than fantasy, but it did everything else Oblivion seemed to be trying to do, but way better. Scaling enemies felt a lot more natural in Fallout 3, for example, while still allowing you the freedom to go practically anywhere starting at level 2 (something lost in Fallout: New Vegas, but that’s another post).
  • I did finish Oblivion, albeit after starting a fresh character with 3 non-used specialized skills, a sword/bow that instantly killed everything below 100 HP, and a general disinterest in side-quests. There were some genuinely novel things going on, and I do remember a few of the quests. Like when you had to fish a ring out of a well, but the ring was enchanted to weight 200 lbs. It sounded (and felt) exactly like something out of my college buddy’s D&D campaign.
  • The Shivering Isles expansion was loads of fun, and easily better than the entire normal game.

If the above sounds concerning in any way, allow me to alley those fears: I walked into Skyrim with a fundamentally different attitude. In the years since Oblivion, games like Minecraft (and, if I’m honest, other gaming blogs) taught me to enjoy more free-form, emergent gameplay.

I still prefer narrative-driven games, of course, but having an audience for Show & Tell purposes actually gives those random occurrences a narrative feeling – nobody cares about the crazy dream you had last night, but hey, look at this:

Horrific arrow wounds + delicious apple pie.

So, anyway, Skyrim is happening. Given the blogging saturation surrounding the game, I will attempt to keep “Christ, look at that mountain!” posts to a minimum. There is actually some topical problems I have with the game’s design, which I’ll get into a bit later. Interestingly, none of the problems are the interface.

Future of Gaming: We (May) Be Screwed

If you play games and had a pulse in the last fifteen years, you have undoubtedly bore witness to the meteoric rise of the Free To Play (F2P) model, which had been preceded by the Downloadable Content (DLC) model, which had been preceded by the “new Madden game every year” model, sandwiched inbetween the 8-hour single-player campaign and Skinner Box School of Character Advancement loafs. It is enough to make a grown man cynically quip “I told you so!” as he shuffles back into the 1990s when games were games, and boys dreamed of somehow getting credited as Writer in the next Squaresoft Final Fantasy epic.* You know, when gaming was cool because it was an ultra-niche hobby that catered solely to you and your demographic – back before the industry totally sold out** and before it was considered hip to pretend you were upset that something sold out.

Well my friends, it actually might be worse than you think.

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